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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Shock splash: Hafnaoui’s song of fire and ice on water

The 18-year-old Tunisian swimmer, the slowest among those who qualified for the final, produced a spectacular race to pinch gold in 400m freestyle.

Written by Sriram Veera |
July 25, 2021 5:02:27 pm
Ahmed Hafnaoui, of Tunisia, celebrates on the podium after winning final. (AP Photo)

As his fingers touched the wall, Ahmed Hafnaoui’s head bobbed up out of the water to look at the board which flashed No 1 next to his name. Stunned, the 18-year-old from Tunisia, who had finished with the slowest timing in the heats among the eight swimmers in the final, let out one of the most spine-tingling roars of the Games yet.

On the upper tier in the stands, his coach heralded the post-Phelps era in the swimming world with a euphoric jig. In the BBC studio, grizzled veteran swimmers pulled up their jaws and dropped it again to laugh even as the host queried them: “Have you guys even heard of him!”. A sentiment that seemed to only go viral as media around the world and fans in social media forums screamed ‘greatest upset, shock’ and other synonyms for their own astonishment.

An affiliate website of America’s NBC flashed an educational article titled ‘Where is Tunisia?’ with a perfect strap: ‘He qualified for the men’s 400-meter freestyle by a hair. He won the gold by almost the same margin.’ Back in the pandemic games, Hafnaoui lowered his mask at the podium as his anthem began. An infectious smile broke out.

Exceeding self-expectations

“I was surprised with myself,” Hafnaoui would say later. “I couldn’t believe it until I touched the wall and saw the 1 … It’s a dream that has come true.” Eventually, he would finish 0.16 seconds ahead of Australia’s Jack McLoughlin who was followed by American Kieran Smith. The top three were separated by less than a second after eight laps of the pool. “I just can’t believe it. It was my best race ever.”

It certainly was. Out in the far eighth lane, traditionally populated by swimmers from small countries that can potentially ‘upset’ but seldom do, he kept his pace right from the start and was in the second position almost throughout the different variations.

Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle – the individual medley plays out in that sequence. A swimmer has to showcase variability, endurance, speed, and transition turns – and know how to deal with surface tension in the water. The rules set up in the late ’80s for backstroke and in the ’90s for all other strokes don’t allow a swimmer to go more than 15 meters underwater. Kicking air doesn’t help with breaking the surface tension.

A swimmer wants to kick water from under so that the dolphin kicks don’t cause water to swirl upon the top and slow him down. The deeper he gets, the more propulsion he gets out of that kick. But then the rules prevent him from going too much under. A lead, as Hafnaoui would attest, is always good as you aren’t waddling in the splashes created by bodies snaking ahead of you close by.

Away from limelight

The commentators kept asking us to watch the middle lanes where European swimmers, known for their ferocious late bursts, or watch the splash of water on the other end where some wet head was furiously bobbing in and out. ‘His strength is pure swimming’, ‘his forte is the breaststroke,’ his strong pumping legs can get him ahead’ – and such comments about other contestants with the obligatory surprise that the Tunisian was still holding on. The scepticism was understandable. Hafnaoui had finished eighth at the 2018 Youth Olympics in the 400 freestyle and 10th at the 2019 World Juniors and it’s not a certainty that Hanfoui would have been in Tokyo had the event not been postponed last year.

“I’m an Olympic champion now. It’s amazing. I feel better in the water than yesterday, and that’s it,” Asked by NBC how he kept his lead, he said: “I don’t know, I just put my hand in the water, that’s it.”

It appears they know how to put a hand in the water back in Tunisia in North Africa, wedged between Algeria and Libya off the coast of the Mediterranean sea. Hafnaoui’s idol is the 37-year old famous Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli who has won gold, in Beijing 2008, and silver, in London 2012, in the 1500 freestyle.

Until three days back, all the chatter from the Tunisian swimming camp was whether Mellouli would boycott this Olympics after a long-running feud with the federation. He relented after the Tunisian Olympic committee president assured him that it would be solved. In the background, Hafnaoui, who is the son of former national basketball player Mohamed Hafnaoui, was working towards his dream. “I train alone with my coaches, it’s difficult but the result is there.” No one can argue with that. Not on the day the Tunisian shocked the world by splashing around the water.

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